There’s enough material in the life of Philippe Mora to warrant not just one movie, but maybe three or four. His career as the director of more than 40 films, for instance, including the Dennis Hopper outlaw flick Mad Dog Morgan. His prolific history as a visual artist — including the time the stench from his rotting-meat statue raised the hackles of Princess Margaret. His relationship with legendary French mime Marcel Marceau, who also happened to be his godfather, or with the up-and-coming musician Eric Clapton, who also happened to be his roommate.
But it is Mora’s origins — complete with his dazzlingly kooky family — that take center stage in Monsieur Mayonnaise, the documentary from director Trevor Graham that premiered in February at the Berlinale Film Festival. And its star may not even be Mora himself, but a life-saving baguette, slathered in mayonnaise.
Graham’s film reaches way back into Mora family history to tell the story of Philippe’s mother, a visual artist born in France to Lithuanian Jewish Eastern-European immigrants, and his father, a German Jewish member of the French Resistance, both of whom later became prominent figures in the Melbourne arts scene. Mayonnaise depicts the Moras’ years in hiding and their efforts to resist the forces of 20th-century European fascism.
If that sounds like a recipe for tragedy, take heart. Graham tells the Moras’ story just as the Moras themselves would: vividly, optimistically and with unflagging good humor. And a love of food and art delivers this family, and the film, out of the recesses of despair.
“All kids want to know what their parents don’t want them to know,” Mora said after the premiere in Berlin, part of the Berlinale’s annual Culinary Cinema series. He described growing up in a “historically sanitized” environment, in a family that maintained a certain joie de vivre and declined to dwell on — or even discuss — their experiences during World War II.
The desire to look deeper into his family’s past, Mora said, sprung from his interest in finding answers — both about his own family history, and about the atrocities committed under the Third Reich.
“I don’t know whether the answers exist or not, but you’ve got to ask the question,” Mora said later in an interview with NPR.
Mora’s friendship with Graham blossomed, as many 21st-century friendships do, over Facebook. (And in true 21st-century terms, they describe theirs as a “bromance.”) Mora had begun to investigate his family history, fearful of missing the opportunity to speak with some of its aging major players, and he posted his findings publicly. Graham’s interest was piqued, and he reached out to Mora about making a film.
In Mayonnaise, we meet Mora in the depths of his research, documenting in a comic book the family stories he unearths. The multi-generational, multi-continental saga comes together in a collage of archival footage, modern-day interviews with Mora and his mother, Mirka, and comic-book panels hand-painted by Mora himself.
From his family, Mora absorbed the message that the film delivers so affably to its audience: “Love the good things in life … like art and mayonnaise.”
And oh, the mayonnaise! Hellmann’s this is not: Deeply, French-ly yellow, the beloved Mora condiment gets whisked up onscreen by Mirka herself — with great enthusiasm, and in seemingly industrial quantity.
Mora knew that his father, Georges, who died in 1992, had earned the curious nickname “Monsieur Mayonnaise” during the war. But it wasn’t until he was an adult that he learned why — from none other than Marcel Marceau himself.
Mayonnaise, it turns out, was the key ingredient in a cunning little trick Georges devised to save the lives of Jewish children: Georges slipped resistance documents and passports (wrapped in wax paper) into baguette sandwiches and slathered them with mayonnaise. The Gestapo, he reasoned, wouldn’t inspect the sandwiches too closely — they wouldn’t want to get mayo on their gloved fingers.
Graham, who also hails from Australia, is a veteran of the Berlinale and of culinary cinema. His last entry in the festival, 2013’s Make Hummus Not War, examined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of the popular chickpea paste, of which both nations claim ownership.
Mora, too, has made something of a career chewing over the same themes that emerge in Mayonnaise. At the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, Mora’s documentary Swastika provoked one of the most violent responses in Cannes history. Appalled that Mora had humanized Adolf Hitler — the film features home footage of the Führer playing with children and discussing Gone With the Wind with Eva Braun — audience members began to shout and throw things at the screen.
According to Mora, the ruckus became so heated that a member of Cannes personnel had to yell into the agitated crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Cannes film festival, not a beer hall.”
Mayonnaise‘s premiere in Berlin transpired far more peaceably. A four-course dinner orchestrated by Michelin-starred chef Christian Lohse — with the title “Mayonnaise Oils the Intelligence” — followed the screening in Berlin’s red-curtained Gropius Mirror Restaurant. The atmosphere was jovial, and both Mora and Graham reviewed Lohse’s (rather white) mayonnaise favorably.
But during the dessert course, when the duo fielded a question about the historic parallels between the Europe of Mayonnaise and that of today, the room fell silent.
The same question “came up the very first screening we had [in Australia],” Graham said over a glass of wine the following evening, in a joint interview with Mora. “There were 700 people, and someone right at the back said, ‘Did you make this film deliberately with contemporary events, events about refugees in mind?’ I said, ‘No, but yes.’ ”
“That’s a tricky answer,” Mora said wryly.
“I know. But that’s the reality,” Graham continued. “What I wanted was for those sorts of things to resonate, but not to be sticking up a placard that’s saying, ‘This is what the film is about.’ The film is about Philippe’s family story and what they experienced.”
For his part, Mora responded to the question with a quote from Mark Twain.
“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mora said, “but it rhymes.”
Morgan Childs is a freelance journalist based in Prague. She’s on Twitter @MorganAChilds